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Book News

Book News: Ursula K. Le Guin Steals The Show At The National Book Awards

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The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

The 65th annual National Book Awards proved big for both literary icons and one notable newcomer. Former Marine Phil Klay took home the top fiction prize for his debut story collection, Redeployment, while long-time favorite Louise Gluck — finally — won the poetry prize for her collection Faithful and Virtuous Night.

Rounding out the award winners were Evan Osnos, whose Age of Ambition earned the honor for nonfiction, and Jacqueline Woodson, who won in the young people's literature category for her memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming.

But, as NPR's Petra Mayer reports, the moment that turned attendees' heads happened even before those awards were announced — and it belonged to Ursula K. Le Guin. In accepting an award for distinguished contribution to American letters, Le Guin delivered an impassioned defense of science fiction — and of writers in general.

"I rejoice in accepting [this prize] for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long: my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction," Le Guin said.

She reserved her most incendiary language for the recently resolved pricing dispute between Amazon and the publisher Hachette Book Group.

"We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience, and writers threatened by corporate fatwa," she said. "And I see a lot of us, the producers, accepting this — letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant!"

"The crowd went wild," Mayer noted. "Really, you could have ended the evening there and almost everyone would have gone home happy — except for the Amazon contingent, who notably had no comment on Le Guin's speech, or the ribbing they endured throughout the night."

And at the after-party, the speech was still on people's minds, including Jynne Martin, the associate publisher at Riverhead books. As she told Mayer, it was "the most ferocious speech ever given at the National Book Awards."

Jamie xx Adapts Safran Foer: Jonathan Safran Foer's book Tree of Codes is an odd one. Redacting large chunks of Bruno Schulz's Street of Crocodiles, Foer crafted a book of his own by subtracting – or, to borrow musical terms, by sampling or remixing Schulz's original text. It's fitting then that Jamie xx, a musician known for his work with samples and remixes, should be the one to adapt Foer's book to music.

Less fitting, though — or at least more surprising — is the medium Jamie's adapting it to: ballet. Pitchfork reports that Jamie xx has composed the score to a contemporary ballet adaptation of Tree of Codes, which is set to be performed in July at the Manchester International Festival.

Mattel Apologizes For Barbie Book: Barbie has stumbled into a public relations quagmire, as a book featuring the iconic doll has sparked criticism of sexist content. The book, Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer, largely depicts her being anything but. For the most part, the story consists of Barbie crashing both her sister's computer and her own — and depending on the help of her male friends to fix them for her.

Since author Pamela Ribon brought it up in a strongly worded blog post, the Internet's reaction to the book has been swift and merciless. Michael Schaub of the Los Angeles Times lists the ways: A deluge of one-star reviews on Amazon, a "remixed" version of the book that reimagines its plot, and even a "Feminist Hacker Barbie" website, which gives visitors a chance to change each page in the book.

A statement, released Wednesday on Barbie's Facebook page, apologizes. "The portrayal of Barbie in this specific story doesn't reflect the Brand's vision for what Barbie stands for," it reads. "We believe girls should be empowered to understand that anything is possible and believe they live in a world without limits. We apologize that this book didn't reflect that belief."

A Tale Of Twain And A Talented Frog: At Lapham's Quarterly, Ben Tarnoff explains how a viral story about a frog-jumping contest turned Mark Twain from a provincial humorist into a national celebrity — and what that says about our shifting notions of place.

"Twain had set out to tell a tall tale and ended up with a work of art," Tarnoff writes. "He used the veil of humor to smuggle in a serious point about the purpose of American literature, challenging the entrenched belief in Eastern superiority and Western barbarism."

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